Incompetence Plus?

Several weeks ago, and perhaps it was longer, one commenter made the astute observation that technology magnifies everything, both the good and the bad. I think that’s definitely true, but, based on reflection and more recent observation, I have the definite feeling that it magnifies some things more than others – and incompetence is one of them.

What’s the basis for this conclusion?  Human nature… and the fact that incompetent actions have a multiplier effect, and when that multiplier effect is magnified by technology, incompetence has a disturbing tendency to spiral into ever greater incompetence because, at least at present, most computer systems are designed to carry out instructions with great efficiency and speed, and if the instructions or the programming are flawed, the magnification of difficulties or ineptness can quickly result in enormous problems.

The great financial meltdown and the ensuing recession from which we still may not have emerged is one very good example. Without computerization and sophisticated software, the development and management [such as it was] of securitized derivatives, CDOs and the like, simply would not have been possible.  Add to that the consolidation of the banking and mortgage industries, and their centralization with decisions being made by a few, again a situation not possible without high technology.  Follow up with sophisticated and high tech profit models, and top off with nano-second securities trading technology.  At that point, we had a highly concentrated and centralized structure where bad decision-making, a lack of competence in understanding what those computer models meant, and a poor understanding, if any understanding, of some basic economics could combine to bring down the entire economy.  And that is exactly what happened.

The lithium-ion battery fiasco with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which could easily have become a disaster, is another example of how technology misused, I venture, can multiply incompetence. Several aviation battery specialists have made the observation that lithium-based batteries have a tendency to overheat if, first, the individual batteries are too large, and, second, if their architecture [i.e., the way in which they are arranged and interconnected] is not well-designed, and, third, if they are overcharged, although so far the third condition does not appear to be a factor.

There are also innumerable simpler forms of technologically multiplied incompetence with often disastrous results, such as the simple combination of cell-phone texting with the operation of an automobile, particularly when the operator’s skills are marginal, in the case of teenage drivers or of tired or distracted drivers.  Or the 80 to 100 car pile-ups that seemly happen routinely anymore because of the combination of incompetent driving [driving too fast for the conditions] in fog or snow. Somehow, I doubt that there were ever hundred-carriage pile-ups.  And how many product recalls have we experienced because of manufacturing or design failures multiplied by the technology of mass production?

Incompetence in data-processing/computer systems is another area where a small incompetence can be multiplied a million-fold.  As I noted in an earlier blog, Delta failed to renew its online website security system, and for two days thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of customers could not make reservations. A software error in the Utah Medicaid system allowed hackers access to personal information of over 700,000 thousand people and the Social Security numbers of more than 280,000 individuals.

Now, the optimists will say, “But look what good technology does.”  I’d agree, but technology’s greatest asset, these days, seems to its efficiency in replacing people, and cutting costs, far more than multiplying benefits.  Yet those people, especially good competent people, are, for lack of a better term, often the circuit-breakers who stop the magnification of incompetence.  So, at present, technological systems are optimized for, if you will, magnification of whatever they do.  That means doing more with fewer people and less oversight and supervision, since one of the areas of employment that’s taken the biggest hit is middle management… and that includes people who can actually solve problems.

Just look at computerized telephone answering systems. If your inquiry doesn’t fit in the proper “box,” it may take what seems like forever to get an answer – if you can at all… and that’s another form of incompetence, magnified by technology.  Now… I may be overcritical, but, all in all, I’m seeing incompetence and outright criminality magnified far more than benefits.

What about you?


8 thoughts on “Incompetence Plus?”

  1. Troll says:

    Wouldn’t a better statement be that technology shows us how dim we really are?

    Trolls, like most creatures, optimize for their own personal benefit, but when every troll has an impact on every other troll, it would be better to optimize for all trolls’ benefit. Companies replace workers by automatons to cut costs, but lose potential customers in so doing. Investors value fossil fuel companies by their reserves, even though burning them all will disrupt civilization.

    Too much thinking! Time to eat a nice mossy rock.

  2. Wine Guy says:

    Technology is a Pandora’s Box where the lid has been off ever since Cain picked up a stone and killed Abel… or Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Though I do not consider myself christian or even religious, the parallels are obvious, as is the message of not being able to unlearn things that are known, even if they are ultimately detrimental. This is true for individuals and, I believe, even more true of societies.

    Technology itself is neutral: it’s the person and the people who use it. UNfortunately, those misuse the developed tools same people who attempt to shift blame to others rather than accepting responsibility.

  3. All right. I’ll buy that — the way we use technology magnifies incompetence more than it magnifies benefits.

  4. Robert Zeh says:

    I don’t think the financial meltdown requires any technological component at all, because we’ve been having financial bubbles since at least the 1700s. For example, the South Sea Company collapse and the Great Depression both managed to depress their respective economies without “sophisticated and high tech profit models, and …nano-second securities trading technology”

    1. It’s true that we’ve had speculative bubbles throughout comparatively recent history, but technology has magnified their impact. The Great Depression was magnified by technology as well. The other fact you’re overlooking is that the recent meltdown was the result of the technological magnification not of a “basic” component of the economy, but the use of technology to multiply financial assets in a fashion by which their value became increasingly divorced from their fundamental worth in a way that far exceeded the speculative excesses of the past.

      1. Robert Zeh says:

        I don’t see any technological reasons why the leverage people were able to take with credit default swaps exceeded what they could have taken with, say, options. The reason firms were able to take such amounts of risk was that they were trading off exchange in markets that were not centrally cleared; this was a regulatory failure, not something enabled by technology.

  5. No…it was an act enabled by technology and allowed by system that had no provisions for regulation. As a matter of simple fact, the current volume of trading could not be handled without technology.

  6. Robert Zeh says:

    While it is true that current volumes of *equity* trading could not be handled without technology, that is not where the problems started. The problems started with credit default swaps, where the number of trades is modest — on the order of 18,000 trades/month in 2007. But 18,000 trades a month doesn’t require automation. The interesting part here is that you can run up huge amounts of risk with a small number of trades.

    My source for the number of trades is

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